Transforming Nature into Beauty: The Process of Concretization

Maya Seligman
April 2000
English Department
Swarthmore College
Senior Essay

I have a concrete dream: Woman with shimmering hair, body like a mango, feet planted in earth, arms full of leaves and flowers, clover in her pubic hair, serenading the morning and the horizon. Five armored creatures drag her away to a concrete bath, encase her in concrete, pour concrete in her ears, in her mouth, in her nose, in every orifice. Confess! Confess! You are a prisoner of concrete, you are the mistress of concrete, you are beloved of concrete, you are a concrete princess. See this limber limb -- see how it stiffens in concrete. See how the skin puckers up and dries in the mummification of concrete. Darling of concrete! Daredevil of concrete! Concretize me! she shrieks. Cake my face, cake my toes, cake my crack!
-- Chin Woon Ping, "The Joys of Concrete," The Naturalization of Camellia Song, p. 79

There is a handwritten message etched into a block of sidewalk in my neighborhood that says "flower power, june 1968." The letters look no different than the way they were on the day that they were scrawled into the wet square of freshly-poured cement -- a substance that has the remarkable ability to freeze time and space. Concrete starts out as a runny fluid and then hardens into a block of dried matter, adhering to everything that is touching it. It is ironic that these noted paved words praise the flower, since sidewalks and blossoms are actually incompatible. Concrete kills all living vegetation underneath it. Roads of asphalt, walkways of pavement, blocks of steps, and expanses of parking lots are all forms of concrete that completely wipe out any grass, flowers or even weeds that may be growing on the ground. The only forms of foliage that survive are the stubborn and courageous blades of grass and dandelions that push through the cement cracks and surround the outer edges. Concrete is certainly a powerful subject. The word is also an adjective that means heavy, dense, material, unshakeable, certain, believable, hard, cold, real or tangible. Concrete is explored in a piece of prose and photograph in this essay. Both the fifth stanza of Chin Woon Ping's prose, "The Joys of Concrete," and David Byrne's photograph, "Contemplation Pile," display a process in which natural articles are concretized in an effort to distinguish them as objects of beauty; yet through analysis, we can see that the prose and picture are actually different in that the former's subject uses domination to bring its object to conformity, while the latter's subject uses reverence to reach unity with its object.

The word concrete appears twelve times in the selected stanza of Chin Woon Ping's prose, "The Joys of Concrete." The opening phrase has the majestic echo of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historically monumental speech, "I have a dream," yet with the modification of an extra descriptive word: "I have a concrete dream." This statement has several possible meanings, depending on the interpretation. Dream may be referring to a vision of the future or an experience in the sleeping state. Does the narrator have a solid, unshakeable hope or simply a Rapid Eye Movement reverie about the substance of concrete? Both are possible, each setting a worthy foundation for the rest of the stanza.
A rich and symbolic character emerges in the rest of this first sentence. She is alive, wet, soft, raw, vulnerable, botanical, and completely natural. It begins with the description, "Woman with shimmering hair," evoking a vision of long, wavy, shiny locks. According to the Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, to shimmer is "to reflect a wavering sometimes distorted visual image" (801). This definition captures a dreamy, mirage-like perspective of the Woman, as if she is diaphanous before our eyes; she is so pure that she is translucent, like clouds above the ocean. She is already a stark contrast to concrete, which embodies the opposite characteristics of being solid, opaque, substantial and compressed. In addition, something that is shimmering tends to mirror gleams of light, unlike the dull, matte surface of concrete.
The next descriptive phrase about the Woman is "body like a mango." This simile identifies her as feminine and sensual. A mango is a tropical fruit that has warm colors, soft flesh, a sweet taste, wet juices, firm skin, aromatic pulp, a hard central stone and a round shape. She is as edible as fruit. With her "feet planted in earth," the Woman's flora-like attributes are further emphasized. Her feet are like seeds enveloped in mulchy soil, or roots growing underground, with her legs sprouting upwards. She is mortal, grounded and real, and she depends on her surroundings for her stability. She has a physical connection to the planet, possibly symbolic of the archetypal Mother Earth. With "arms full of leaves and flowers," the Woman fully exhibits the alive nature of a tree that blooms with botanical features. She embraces nature, as if she is growing in a garden herself. The phrase, "clover in her pubic hair," draws attention to her genital area, displaying her open state of nudity. Did the clover drop from her arms, catching in her patch of hair below her belly button? Or is it growing there, its small leaves popping up from the fronds of grassy hair? This innocent reference illuminates her sexuality and primal temperament.
The last part of the first sentence identifies what the Woman is doing: "serenading the morning and the horizon." She is singing to both time and space. The morning is the early part of the day that is surveyed by a human evaluation of where the Earth is facing in relation to the sun -- an allotment of our construction of time. The horizon is the distant line where the land meets the sky from the observer's perspective, identifying a measurement of three-dimensional space. These elements show the importance of the Woman's relationship to her surrounding context of the material plane, as her actions are affected by the elements around her. To serenade is to give a complimentary vocal performance, displaying honor for those who are receiving it. The Woman holds respect for the morning and horizon, since she is in the act of expressing it. Therefore, all components of the first sentence show the Woman's inherent radiance of pure nature, in her physical and energetic demeanor, her relationship to the objects in her grasp, and her actions.
The next sentence describes a sudden event that violently changes the Woman's reality: "Five armored creatures drag her away to a concrete bath, encase her in concrete, pour concrete in her ears, in her mouth, in her nose, in every orifice." Concentrating attention on the first word, it is worth questioning why the dream identifies five creatures in particular. Five is a very physical number, representing various parts of the human body, since we have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. As Kalu Ripoche writes, Tibetan beliefs also identify five elements associated with our body: space, fire, earth, wind (air) and water. Chinese theory identifies the five elements in the physical plane around us as metal, wood, water, fire and earth, according to Zhuan Falun. We have five senses: taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. Thus it is very relevant that there are five creatures to drag the woman away, since they are going through a process of seizing her whole physical self, ove